RICHMOND — This week in the Virginia governor’s race: One of Republican Ken Cuccinelli II’s big financial backers compared abortion to slavery. Cuccinelli himself, it turned out, made a similar remark last year. Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) objected to the comparison. Ditto for House Democrats, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party.
The contest between Attorney General Cuccinelli and former Democratic National Committee chairman McAuliffe has been all about abortion in recent days, even as the candidates claim to be focused on the kitchen-table issues they say voters care most about.
Although Cuccinelli has been an abortion opponent throughout his political career, his campaign is not stressing the issue. It’s the Democrats who are playing it up, convinced that Cuccinelli’s abortion views will turn off voters. In the space of seven hours Wednesday, Democrats blasted five different news releases on the abortion-slavery flap, on top of the two they had issued the day before.
“This is the shape of things to come this year in Virginia politics,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist. “The battle between these two highly partisan figures is going to resemble the trench warfare of World War I — lots of explosions in the hopes of gaining a little yardage.”
In another military metaphor, Farnsworth called the Democrats’ news-release onslaught “the political equivalent of carpet bombing.”
It began Tuesday morning, when Democrats called on Cuccinelli to condemn remarks made by Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, which last month pledged at least $1.5 million to his campaign.
Dannenfelser compared public funding of abortions to laws that required opponents of slavery to help return slaves to their masters. “When our hands are bloodied by this, it becomes a whole ’nother thing,” she said in a speech last weekend to the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Cuccinelli gave the opening address.
Then came the news, first reported by the Associated Press, that Cuccinelli made similar remarks in June to the conservative Family Foundation.
“Over time, the truth demonstrates its own rightness, and its own righteousness,” Cuccinelli said in comments videotaped by a Democratic Party “tracker.” “Our experience as a country has demonstrated that on one issue after another. Start right at the beginning — slavery. Today, abortion. History has shown us what the right position was, and those were issues that were attacked by people of faith aggressively to change the course of this country.”
The abortion-slavery comparison is “kind of a trope or metaphor” that antiabortion activists have used for many years to convey “their sense of the horror of the activity” and their acknowledgment that they are in for a long fight, said former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Bob Holsworth.
Cuccinelli’s campaign declined to discuss the comparison. Instead, it seized the opportunity to pivot to its own favorite topic: McAuliffe’s out-of-state fundraising, particularly when it relates to former president Bill Clinton, a longtime McAuliffe friend.
The campaign made that leap by raising questions about two McAuliffe supporters who recently hosted fundraisers for him. One was a Clinton aide linked by a media report to a scam artist who served prison time, the other hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2000 Senate bid and got a weekend at the Clinton White House.
“Ken Cuccinelli is focused on issues that matter to Virginia’s middle class, instead of gutter politics peddled by [a] professional fund-raiser, Terry McAuliffe,” Cuccinelli spokeswoman Anna Nix said via e-mail. “But if Terry McAuliffe wants to discuss donors, we are more than willing to oblige.”
Republicans have sent their own flurry of e-mails in recent weeks, drawing attention to McAuliffe fundraisers in New York, Florida and elsewhere. One pounced on McAuliffe for urging Virginians to take care in a looming snowstorm — the hook being that he tweeted his concern from sunny Florida, where he was having a fundraiser.
“This is what this race is going to be about,” Holsworth said. “It’s coming down to defining Cuccinelli as an extremist from another planet and . . . defining McAuliffe as an undocumented Virginian. ”